Favorite Travel Photo…The Arno River – Florence, Italy

The Arno River - Florence, Italy

View of the “Oltrarno,” or “other Arno,” meaning the other side of the Arno River—the side opposite the Duomo, Uffizi Gallery, and other well-known landmarks

The beautiful Arno River runs through the center of Florence, then on toward Pisa and beyond.  Once the area’s primary “highway,” it facilitated the transport of goods between the sea and cities in central Italy, and enabled warring troops to approach and attack their enemies up and down the river.  It is said that the Florentines cheerfully relieved themselves into the Arno River, knowing that their downstream rivals, the Pisans, would be the recipients of the “polluted” water.

The Arno is not always as picturesque and serene as it appears in this photo.  On several occasions, it has overflowed its banks, creating massive flooding.  In 1966, Florence was devastated by floodwaters which rose as high as twenty-two feet, killing forty people and severely damaging or destroying many priceless pieces of artwork.  Several of Florence’s most notable attractions—including the Uffizi Gallery and the Ponte Vecchio—lie along (or across) the Arno River.  No visit to Florence is complete without a leisurely stroll along the banks of the river.

Drive-By Beauty…Le Marche – Italy

Reluctantly leaving Venice behind, we loaded our luggage into a rented mini-van and hit the road south toward Rimini.  (Exactly how we managed to cram ourselves and our luggage into the smaller-than-anticipated vehicle is a story in itself…to be told another time.  Let’s just say it’s a good thing the Italians aren’t as picky about seatbelts as are Americans!)  Our journey took us through the lesser known region of Italy called Le Marche (pronounced “lay markay”), sometimes translated into English as “The Marches.”  This area, along with Tuscany and Umbria, comprises the central part of the country and is situated between the Adriatic Sea and the Apennine Mountains.  Historically agricultural, the region is still rural to a large extent with a mixture of villages and farmlands.  Our route took us along meandering roads and through hilly terrain, past idyllic hamlets where time seems to have stood still.  We wound our way through the scenic countryside—stopping to snap a photo here and there, often attempting to catch a “drive-by” shot in passing.  Even now, as I look back through the photos from that day, I am struck by the tranquility reflected in each one.  It is Italy at her unassuming finest—homey and pastoral.  Truly a region worth seeing—even if you are only passing through.

Farewell to Venice…

Farewell to Venice

We said good-bye to the City of Water with great reluctance.  We would have happily stayed on in Venice for another month had we had the time and wherewithal.  We made arrangements for a water taxi to pick us up at our hotel and transport us back to the mainland.  From there a private shuttle took us to the airport where we rented a van for a road trip down the Adriatic coast.  I hope to return to Venice and stay longer…sooner than later!

The Little Stone Bridge That Stood…

Venice’s elegant Rialto Bridge spreading her lacy petticoat across the Grand Canal

The single span Rialto Bridge is the oldest of four bridges straddling the Grand Canal in Venice.  Completed in 1591, this unique stone arch was built to replace the original wooden structure that had twice collapsed.  The bridge’s twin incline ramps meet to form a central portico which is lined with shops catering to Venice’s tourist crowd.  The bridge includes three separate walkways—two along the outside and one wider passageway down the center.  Its high arching design was intentional as ships required adequate space to pass under the bridge.  Some so-called “experts” predicted future ruin, but the regal Rialto has defied her critics to become the most famous—and most photographed—bridge in the city.

We visited the bustling Rialto district first thing on a Tuesday morning.  The Grand Canal teemed with activity as boats of every size and description jockeyed for position—loading and unloading freight, hauling passengers, or motoring to and from the lagoon.  Locals and tourists alike mounted the ancient stone steps of the Rialto Bridge as vendors set up kiosks and hawked their wares.  We had witnessed crowds and activity in other parts of the city, but the atmosphere in the Rialto district was different—businesslike and efficient.  Here and there a gondolier loitered; others deftly threaded their gondolas through the maze of watercraft on the canal.  This area is the oldest settled part of Venice and originally boasted exclusive shops, banks, and the fish market (which was later moved to the opposite side of the bridge to avoid assailing the noses of the bankers with less than appealing odors!).

I understand that the Rialto is scheduled to undergo restoration and cleaning in the near future—if work has not already begun.  Italy has employed innovative measures to fund its recent restoration efforts—seeking paid sponsorship by large businesses in return for free advertising during the work effort.  It is entirely possible, therefore, that the bridge will be shrouded in canvas for a period of time and bedecked with ads for Diesel, the Italian clothing company reported to be footing the bill for the restoration project.  Times, how they are a-changin’…

Venice’s Riva degli Schiavoni…Something for Everyone

Riva degli Schiavoni

View of St. Mark’s Basin (the lagoon) and San Giorgio Maggiore from the Riva degli Schiavoni

The crowded promenade that runs along the waterfront in Venice past the Bridge of Sighs and mere steps from St. Mark’s Square is known as the Riva degli Schiavoni.  Here tourists can embark upon a gondola tour, purchase every kind of souvenir imaginable, mix and mingle with artists and craftsmen as they showcase their work, or grab a quick bite to eat.  The waterfront is one of the busiest spots in Venice.  Dating back to the ninth century, this bustling walkway is lined with historic buildings—many of which were once the palace homes of Venetian aristocrats, and today serve as hotels, restaurants, and shops.  There is also a large bronze monument honoring Vittorio Emmanuele II, the first king of Italy.  The Riva degli Schiavoni offers a fantastic view of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and its beautiful church by the same name.

I am not big on buying souvenirs, but was impressed by the artwork on display along the Riva degli Schiavoni.  I purchased several beautiful oil paintings from a local Venetian artist, which I had framed and now hang on the wall just a few feet from where I sit.  Each time I look at them I am transported back in time and experience once again the wonder and awe of that amazing city we call Venice…

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When in Venice…Gondola!

No trip to Venice is complete without a gondola ride!  While many visitors opt for a romantic, nighttime excursion in the soft moonlight with a serenading gondolier, a daytime tour is an excellent way to experience Venice up close and personal.  Gazing up at the city from the water and gliding under a seemingly never-ending succession of bridges—each one unique—provides a completely different perspective than one gets when sightseeing on dry ground.  Our group of six decided to go for the 60-minute private tour, all in one gondola.  That option was fine for us as we wanted to share the experience as a family group.  However, if your vision of a gondola ride is slightly more intimate than six folks loaded into one boat with four of those people seated on straight-backed chairs along the edges, you will likely want to book a tour for two.  That said, we had great fun and saw a tremendous amount of the city in one hour.  Our gondolier, Sandro, was informative and entertaining; he spoke perfect English, so communication was no problem at all.  It was intriguing to watch the gondoliers interact when passing one another along the route.  As they turned blind corners or slid into narrow spaces, the gondoliers would whistle or shout a warning.  They chatted back and forth like old friends—as I am sure many of them are.

I booked our tour online ahead of time through Walks of Italy.  We used the Danieli Gondola Service—located opposite the Hotel Danieli on the Riva degli Schiavoni.  We boarded the gondola in St. Mark’s Basin a short distance from St. Mark’s Square, passed under the Bridge of Sighs, and traveled along many of the city’s smaller, interior canals.  We saw several notable landmarks including the reputed birthplace of Marco Polo, the famous Venetian merchant and explorer.  Overall, we found the entire experience to be agreeable—peaceful, relaxing, and enlightening.  There are a number of unique itineraries for gondola tours, depending on which boarding point you choose.  It is, therefore, wise to do a little homework before settling on a particular route.  Be prepared to pay a bit, as gondola tours are not cheap—but the opportunity is not to be missed!

I had scheduled our gondola tour to immediately follow our guided tour of the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Cathedral.  As luck would have it, we were running a bit behind schedule and were late arriving at the loading dock.  The confirmation paperwork I had received from Walks of Italy stressed the importance of a prompt arrival, so I was a bit worried that we would run into complications.  Thankfully we were able to get right in, and our tardiness actually worked to our advantage since the majority of the other tourists were already on their way and the waterfront was much less crowded.

Hours later as I lay in bed, I could still “feel” the gentle rocking of the gondola!

I Only Count Happy Hours…

Clock Tower in St. Mark’s Square

The clock tower in St. Mark’s Square is a fascinating and beautiful piece of Renaissance architecture, and impressive to me for its grandeur as well as its antiquity.  Facing the waters of St. Mark’s Basin, the richly enameled clock face is yet another symbol of the wealth and prestige that was Venice at the zenith of her glory days.  Completed in 1499, the clock tower was originally freestanding.  Four lateral bays were added in the early sixteenth century; the upper stories and balustrades more than a century later.  The arched opening below the clock is the entrance to the Merceria—Venice’s primary thoroughfare—which runs from St. Mark’s Square to the Rialto Bridge, connecting the city’s religious center to its commercial district.

A pair of colossal bronze figures standing atop the tower are known as “Moors” because of their dark color.  The bell situated between the two is original and was cast at the Arsenal in 1497.  The Moors strike the hours on the bell.  The inscription on the tower reads “Horas non numero nisi serenas”—“I only count happy hours.”  One level below the Moors and their bell is the winged lion of Venice with an open book.  Below that is a semi-circular gallery with copper statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus positioned between two large, blue panels showing the time—the hour on the left in Roman numerals, and the minutes (at five-minute intervals) on the right in Arabic numerals.  The clock’s enameled face of blue and gold is fixed within a marble circle that is etched with Roman numerals for the twenty-four hours of the day.  A golden hand with an image of the sun travels around the circle, indicating the hours of the day.  I am amazed at the intricate workings of this centuries-old timepiece!  Not only does it reflect the date and the hour, but also the position of the sun within the zodiac and the phases of the moon.

It is possible to tour the clock tower, but reservations must be made in advance.  The stairway is narrow and steep but anyone willing to brave it can climb to the rooftop terrace, passing the clock’s mechanism on the way up.  Alas, our too-tight schedule did not allow time for a tour, so that is another thing I have added to my mental bucket list.  I need to live to be a hundred…

Flashback Friday: The Drawing Room of Europe…

PiazzaSanMarco-1960s

Piazza San Marco as seen in the mid to late 1960s.

In a quote attributed to Napoleon, St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco) is referred to as “the drawing room of Europe.”  Though the impressive origin of this quote is unsubstantiated, it is reflective of the significance placed upon Venice’s principal public square—known to locals simply as “the Piazza.”

St. Mark’s Square – Venice

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We walked from our hotel to St. Mark’s Square on our first night in Venice.  Despite the frigid temperatures (it was an unusually cold November), there were a number of people milling around.  The lights shining through the mist from the Procuratie (buildings along the perimeter of the piazza) created a warm, hazy glow as we sipped steaming cups of coffee and cocoa purchased from the American Snack Bar—conveniently located at the edge of the square.  There was a disproportionate number of vendors trying to hawk their (illegal) merchandise near the cathedral.  The most common item was a small helicopter-type toy with neon lights that made a high-pitched whirring noise when tossed into the air.  This they did repeatedly while attempting to cajole visitors into purchasing one.  It was an annoyance, albeit a minor one.

The following day we returned to St. Mark’s Square with our guide, Elisabetta.  We toured the Basilica, but were not allowed to take photographs beyond the atrium.  A group of tourists chose to ignore the “No Fotos” signs and were promptly dressed down by Elisabetta.  It was quite amusing.  I do not remember the specifics, but I know that we had to enter the cathedral at a certain time, and the lights were not on.  I think the effect would have been more impressive had that not been the case.  Even so, it is ornate and stunningly beautiful.  The cathedral was packed with tourists and I have been told that it is the largest magnet for pickpockets in Venice.

The basilica is not only the religious center of Venice, but also tangible evidence of that city’s prominence politically, intellectually, culturally, and economically for centuries.  It was the Doge’s personal chapel and was lavished with all of the riches the Republic’s admirals and merchants could carry off from the Orient.  It is appropriately nicknamed Chiesa D’Oro, or the Golden Church.  Since 832 the cathedral has housed the remains of St. Mark, which, according to legend, were stolen from Alexandria by two Venetians in 828.  In 1204, Doge Enrico Dandolo had four gilt-bronze horses (originally displayed at the Hippodrome) sent back to Venice as part of the loot confiscated from Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  The original horses were removed from the balcony above the portal of the basilica in the 1300s and replaced with bronze replicas that can be seen today.  (The originals are on display in the cathedral museum.)

The most amazing element of the basilica’s décor (in my opinion) is the shimmering golden mosaics that date back to the medieval period.  Almost a third of the mosaics survive in something close to their original form.  These date from the 12th and 13th centuries and depict the Creation, stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, the life of Christ, and other Biblical events.  The Cotton Bible—the earliest illustrated Bible, which was pillaged from Constantinople—provided the designs for the exquisite mosaics.

St. Mark’s Campanile (bell tower) is 323 feet tall and stands in a corner of St. Mark’s Square near the front of the basilica.  It is actually a replica built in 1912 after the original tower collapsed without warning in 1902.  The present campanile was rebuilt exactly like the original with the addition of internal reinforcements intended to prevent future collapse.  It was inaugurated exactly 1,000 years after the date that the foundation of the original tower is said to have been laid.  It is possible to ride an elevator to the top of the tower.  Sadly, we did not have time to do that, but I hear that the view from the top is incredible–Venice and the lagoon, as well as the Alps in the distance.

The two columns situated near the waterfront in Piazzetta San Marco—just beyond St. Mark’s Square—are topped with symbols of the city.  The winged lion of St. Mark and the city’s first patron, St. Theodore, with his dragon tower high above the landscape.  Apparently, the Republic executed convicted criminals between the two columns in days gone by.  It is said that, to this day, superstitious Venetians avoid walking between the pair of columns.

The platforms located outside St. Mark’s Cathedral are used when the water rises in the square.  They are laid out end-to-end and provide an elevated walkway.  Thankfully, there was no flooding while we were there!

For a little extra cash, you can grab a seat at one of the outdoor cafes in the square and order something to eat or drink while you watch the passersby.  Or, like us, you can opt for a cup of coffee and a bite to eat from the American Snack Bar and do your people-watching standing up!  Either way, St. Mark’s Square is a must-see stop on your Venice travel agenda.